Ethanol Uses, Benefits, and Chemical Safety Facts

Ethanol (Ethyl Alcohol)

Updated January 21, 2022

Ethanol, also called alcohol, ethyl alcohol and grain alcohol, is a clear, colorless liquid and an ingredient in alcoholic beverages like beer, wine or brandy. Because it can readily dissolve in water and other organic compounds, ethanol also is an ingredient in a range of products, from personal care and beauty products to paints and varnishes to fuel.

What is Ethanol?

Ethanol is a natural byproduct of plant fermentation and can be produced through the hydration of ethylene.

Uses & Benefits

Personal Care Products

Ethanol is a common ingredient in many cosmetics and beauty products.(1) It acts as an astringent to help clean skin, as a preservative in lotions and to help ensure that lotion ingredients do not separate, and it helps hairspray adhere to hair.

Because ethanol is effective in killing microorganisms like bacteria, fungi and viruses, it is a common ingredient in many hand sanitizers. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the use of hand sanitizers in situations where soap and water are not available.(2) Practicing hand hygiene is also an important part of helping to stop the spread of COVID-19. Using hand sanitizers or alcohol-based hand rubs (ABHR) can help to inactivate SARS-CoV-2, the strain of coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Household Products

Ethanol mixes easily with water and many organic compounds and makes an effective solvent for use in paints, lacquers and varnish, as well as personal care and household cleaning products. As an additive to cleaning products, ethanol is also used as a preservative because it is effective in knocking out organisms that could pose a danger to consumers.(3)

Food Additives

As a food additive, ethanol can help evenly distribute food coloring, as well as enhance the flavor of food extracts. For example, vanilla extract, a common food flavoring, is made by curing and processing vanilla beans in a solution of ethanol and water. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only allows vanilla to be called “extract” when it has an alcohol or ethanol base.(4)


More than 98 percent of U.S. gasoline contains ethanol, typically in a mixture called E10, made up of 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline, to oxygenate the fuel and reduce air pollution.(5) Ethanol has a higher octane number than gasoline, providing premium blending properties, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.(5) Minimum octane number requirements prevent engine knocking and maintain drivability.

Safety Information

Ethanol is highly flammable and should not be used near open flames. Ethanol inhalation can cause coughing or headaches, according to the CDC.

FDA has labeled ethanol as a Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) substance, which means that a panel of qualified experts determined that ethanol is safe to use in food products.(6) Because ethanol is a very pure form of alcohol, its consumption and use in foods is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. 

Ethanol Safety

To discourage the drinking of pure ethanol from personal care or cleaning products, a “denaturant,” such as a bitter flavoring, is usually added. Denaturants make alcohol unsuitable for human consumption, but does not change the other properties of the substance.

Answering Questions

What are some foods that contain ethanol?

Brandied fruits and candies with alcoholic fillings examples are examples of foods with ethanol.(7) Other food products such as plum pudding and fruit cake can contain ethanol if distilled spirits are used for the flavoring and preserving.

What are some uses for ethyl alcohol?

Ethyl alcohol is used to make alcoholic beverages, for example wine, beer and liquor. Ethyl alcohol can also be used as a solvent.

How is ethanol made?

In the United States, ethanol is primarily produced from the fermentation of starch in corn grain. In the fuel industry, biorefineries use state-of-the-art technologies to convert grains, beverage and food waste, cellulosic biomass and other feedstocks into high-octane ethanol.

Why is alcohol an ingredient in mouthwash and cough syrup?

Alcohol is added to mouthwash to dissolve other ingredients and help important active ingredients such as menthol, eucalyptol and thymol penetrate plaque.

Many cough and cold liquids and other OTC (over-the-counter) products contain some alcohol. In the formulation, alcohol helps to dissolve active ingredients or preserve the product.


  1. SD Alcohol 39-C – Cosmetics Info
  2. Hand Sanitizer Use Out and About –
  3. About Cleaning Product Ingredients | The American Cleaning Institute (ACI)
  4. CFR – Code of Federal Regulations Title 21 (
  5. Alternative Fuels Data Center: Ethanol Fuel Basics (
  6. CFR – Code of Federal Regulations Title 21 (
  7. TTBGov – dbmenu8sub1